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Most of the things we take for granted today have come from every corner of the globe: the coffee you drink, the food you eat and the clothes you wear, before even considering the luxury items you crave. These weren't always available and became widespread at a monumental human cost. Welcome to the history of Global Commodities!
A global commodity is a commonly-traded good that is in demand in different locations worldwide. Trade on a continental level was already routine during the medieval period. However, by the end of this epoch, around 1500, a newfound zeal for exploration widened knowledge of and ability to possess such commodities.
A country that sends citizens to other lands to establish political control over them.
Global commodity chain:
A network of trade where resources are gathered, refined, and distributed, often in exchange for other commodities.
European colonizers including the Portuguese, closely followed by the Spanish triggered a new globalized marketplace. Despite ancient trade routes such as the Silk Road, global commodity chains (established worldwide) had not occurred until this moment.
The Silk Roads were a network of trading routes stretching from China in the East to Constantinople in the West, established around 128 BCE. These had been the bedrock of trade until the Ottoman sack of Constantinople in 1453 when the Muslim Empire closed them for international trade. As a result, Europeans needed to seek alternative methods to find commodities in Asia. Venice had previously held a monopoly on these commodities, as an important trade center in Europe.
To understand how a global commodity chain works on a continental level, let's dive back to 13th-century Europe and examine wool.
Referred to as the "sovereign merchandise", wool became an excellent source of wealth for Britain. Wool from sheep made cloth, so textile makers in Europe sent merchants to Britain.
The exchange of commodities for other commodities instead of money.
A person involved in commercial activity, often in the wholesale purchasing of commodities from foreign countries.
These merchants were primarily men from Flanders, France, and Italy. In Flanders, there was a shortage of wool while in Britain it was plentiful. The Mediterranean climate of France and Italy did not lend itself to rearing sheep. As a result, the French and Italians bartered with the British, exchanging wine, furs, ceramics, silks, and metals. These came from nearby, or far, along the Silk Road. This system of mutual benefit and reciprocity is a localized commodity chain.
Trade agreements such as these occurred, where access was possible until the Age of Discovery brought about a host of new possibilities in terms of global commodities.
Age of Discovery:
The name given to the early modern period between around 1450 to 1650. It was characterized by seafaring Europeans in search of new lands because of their naval capabilities. It coincided with the initial colonization of the New World.
The continents of the world that were unexplored by Europeans, primarily North and South America.
During this period, a more recognizable modern chain of commodities emerged. The dynamic of power between the colonizer and the colonized meant that commodity chains favored the wealthy, European aggressor who could direct the distribution of their product, as Beckert et al. assert:
This period was characterized by the direct and violent dispossession of people from land and nature and unfree labour systems."1
- Beckert et al, 'Commodity frontiers and the transformation of the
global countryside: a research agenda', 2021
These chains also provided the blueprint for modern capitalism. Now we will look at some of the major commodities that emerged in the global chain of demand.
Of course, it is impossible to consider the chain of every global commodity during this period. However, to give you an idea of the global nature of the trade networks, we can include a map alongside this list of where some important commodities originated.
Although not an exhaustive list that considers every commodity, this should give you an idea of the worldwide nature of trade in these resources.
Now let's move on to the role of specific commodities in commodity chains to understand these new trade relationships that the Age of Discovery ushered in.
One of the commodities that had the most profound effect on the commodity chain was sugar. Originally grown on islands in the Atlantic Ocean including the Canary Islands and Madeira, sugar was not for the common European man in medieval times, though royalty purchased it through Venice merchants. However, the Portuguese began to prioritize sugar once they colonized Brazil in 1500.
Despite their ambition and naval prowess, Portugal was a relatively small nation, with a population of only one million. They could not hope to have the workforce to maximize the possibilities that the Brazilian land and climate presented to cultivate sugar. So they turned to Africa, where they had already established trading posts. Between 1525 and 1866 almost 13 million Africans became slaves in the New World!
Sugar was and remains a truly global commodity.
A large estate where crops are grown for commercial harvesting.
Here is the commodity chain the plantations in Brazil helped to create and the Portuguese were able to manipulate.2
America (Colony) — Europe
America (Colony) — Africa
America (Colony) — Africa — Asia
Tobacco — Slaves — Woven fabrics
This diagram demonstrates that even during the absence of sugar in the final two chains, its demand led to the sourcing and bartering of other valuable commodities.
Silver was another commodity found in the New World after the conquests of colonial powers. The Spanish colonizers stumbled across the precious commodity, commonly found in Mexico and Peru. Between 1500 and 1800, these two regions produced 85% of the world's silver. However, 40% of this ended up in China.
The Europeans sold silver to China and enjoyed the spoils of Chinese silk, porcelain, and then tea in return. Brading and Cross note that:
Similarities (with sugar) are striking. Unlike tobacco or gold, both sugar and silver required an elaborate refining process only rendered possible by considerable capital investment.3
- D. A. Brading and Harry E. Cross, 'Colonial Silver Mining: Mexico and Peru,' 1972
This time, instead of using African slaves, the Spanish used the forced labor of local indigenous populations. The workforce required also gave rise to local merchants who gained wealth within internal trade throughout the Spanish Americas. These enterprises were responsible for installing a capitalist mentality in these regions.
Spices were readily available without the necessity of extraction. The Silk Road enabled spices to travel across Asia and East Africa from the Indian Ocean. Portuguese voyager, Vasco da Gama pioneered European access to exotic spices such as cloves, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper.
Trading Posts, not Tyranny
The Portuguese recognized that it would be beneficial to establish trading posts in Africa and Asia. It was their decision to do this that allowed them to gradually map out the region and avoid conflicts.
Vasco da Gama arrived in India for the first time in 1498 after sailing around Africa. However, the rejection of his gifts by the King of Calicut meant that he went back to Europe empty-handed. Returning in 1502, with a fleet of 20 ships, he looted and destroyed the city, grabbing all the exotic spices that he could get his hands on.
In 1524, the Portuguese finally established a small colony in Goa. They had control of South East Asian trade, but in the following centuries, their lack of ability to dominate large swathes of land meant that control of the region went to the British and the Dutch.
Sought after not only for their flavor-enhancing abilities, but also their medical import amid the belief that the body was a delicate system of balances, spices did not require the complex refining process involved in commodities such as sugar and silver.
Over the centuries, the landscape of global commodities has changed. Improvements in working conditions and the abolishment of slavery have allowed developing countries a greater chance to forge their wealth. Nevertheless, the European Union suggests that we have reached:
A new state of unsustainability."2
- Beckert et al, 'Commodity frontiers and the transformation of the
global countryside: a research agenda,' 2021
A troubling example of this is the reverberations of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, driven by Vladimir Putin. The resulting sanctioning of gas and other commodities has caused huge price hikes for the European Union. This shows what can happen if an important cog in the commodity chain goes its own way.
If the price of the good increases at its source it can cause inflation in the global economy, as exemplified by the price of gas in 2022.
The system goods use to be traded, purchased and transported across the world.
Commonly globally traded goods in medieval times and the early modern period were silk, sugar, silver and spices.
Spices were used for medicinal reasons as well as for flavors.
The path a global commodity follows through its trade lifespan.
What is a global commodity?
A good which is in demand worldwide.
Vasco da Gama was a sailor who went to India.
Which global commodities required refining?
Why were spices so important to medieval Europe?
Spices were not only used in cooking, they were medicinal.
How did control of global commodities create political power?
Controlling the transport or production of a global commodity allows the producer or transporter to direct distribution of crucial goods.
allowed the global commodity chain to reach the New World.
The Age of Discovery.
What was the centre of European trade before the Age of Discovery?
Sugar was consumed by most Europeans during medieval times.
Africans became slaves in the New World between 1525 and 1866.
Which country was the biggest importer of silver?
The Road was a system of ancient trade routes.
Who has disrupted the global commodity chain in 2022?
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